Bassist, composer and bandleader William Parker is a bottomless well of creativity, and his endless run of superb recordings continues with For Those Who Are, Still, a three-disc box of four previously unissued long-form works, one of them dating back 15 years.
The four pieces, by four ensembles, are very different from one another; the only unifying theme is that they had been in the vault. “For Fannie Lou Hamer,” a 28-minute tone poem honoring the late civil-rights leader that was recorded in 2000, begins as a droning, unmusical storm but changes form several times. The 10-piece house band at the Manhattan arts space the Kitchen performs the composition, along with Parker’s favorite vocalist, Leena Conquest; Parker himself doesn’t play. Conquest sings beautifully and delivers spoken word, spurred on by stringed and wind instruments, plunky percussion and freely blown brass. Freedom, structure and groove coexist peacefully. Conquest returns, 10 1/2 years later, for the nine-movement “Vermeer,” a stripped-down event with saxophonist Darryl Foster, pianist Eri Yamamoto and Parker on bass and bamboo flute. It’s a tasteful, refined affair, drawing equally from the realms of free improvisation and chamber music, with vocals that hint at the operatic. It’s quite lovely.
“Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks,” as the name implies, is a pan-global work, betraying roots in Asian, African, Caribbean and American music. It was performed in Paris in 2012 by an octet featuring longtime Parker associates and newcomers alike: drummer Hamid Drake; pianist Cooper-Moore; reedists Rob Brown, Bill Cole and Klaas Hekman; Senegalese singer-musician Mola Sylla and Indian vocalist Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay. Parker wrote the six-part work specifically for them, and it is an epic beauty, starting with the vocalists trading anguished lines that sound like calls to prayer in a period film. Particularly evocative is the 20-minute third section, “The Giraffe Dances,” which opens with a three-minute unaccompanied bass saxophone solo by Hekman; it suddenly acquires a Middle Eastern accent and leads to a heated exchange with Drake that gives way to a pitched battle by the superb rhythm section of Drake, Parker and Cooper-Moore. Eventually everyone is in on the action, and the wild vocals combine with the aggressive instrumental sounds to create music unlike any you’ve heard before.
“Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still,” recorded in Poland in 2013, has the largest scale of any composition Parker has ever attempted, and it features the National Forum of Music Symphony Orchestra and eight members of the NFM Choir, along with Chicago drummer Mike Reed and saxophonist/pianist Charles Gayle. Dedicated to a late Russian bassist named Rustam Abdullaev, it’s dramatic and unsettling, with movements that soar and swoop. It’s not quite jazz, it’s not classical and it would be an oversimplification to label it something like Third Stream. It is, however, bold and unflinching. Ending the set is a 25-minute live improv, “Escapade for Sonny,” that the trio of Parker, Gayle and Reed performed right before the premiere of “Ceremonies.” Parker and Reed are on fire, but Gayle sounds uncharacteristically bored and uninspired. In the greater context of the magnificent For Those Who Are, Still, it’s a tiny complaint.